If HR is so crap, why does it continue to exist?

One of the tricks of being a successful journalist is being able to write confidently and with the impression of authority on subjects about which you know next to nothing. Sathnam Sanghera admits that he has never dealt with anyone in an HR function but that didn’t stop him from writing an article attacking the HR profession in today’s Times. his piece is rather like some of  those articles which appeared a month or so ago attacking the NHS; light on evidence but with enough dog-whistle assertions to ensure a comments box full of foaming rants against its intended target.

Sangera demonstrates his lack of understanding when he jumps on the statistics from a recent report on the HR function by Deloittes:

The truth is that HR is shrinking and we should embrace its demise………HR is already shrinking: last week a report by Deloitte, the advisory firm, found that companies had recently got rid of 30 per cent of their HR people and argued that unless HR departments adapted to a new role, they could become defunct.

The reason 30% of HR people have disappeared is because HR functions have spent the past few years streamlining their processes and outsourcing their administrative functions. The CIPD report referred to by Deloitte shows a trend towards smaller HR functions with higher numbers of professional staff. Far from being a sign of HR’s decline, the reduction in its manpower is an indication that the profession is making some headway.

Despite having worked on newspapers for most of his short life, Sanghera tells us with conviction that “a few decades ago” HR functions worked just fine. Ah, another feature of pop-journalism; the mythical golden age. Just like when Matron ran the hospitals eh?

He concludes:

Get rid of 90 per cent of HR policies, 90 per cent of HR people and then wash your hands of it.

Now that would have been a really interesting place from which to start. If so much of what HR functions do is superfluous, why do so many organisations still have them? Why can’t you just get rid of 90 per cent of HR policies and people?

The answer is simple. HR functions don’t exist in isolation; they are part of a wider organisation and they almost always reflect the way that organisation is run. If a firm has a short-term focus, so will its HR department. If its managers are risk-averse its HR people will be too. It works the other way round. You can tell a lot about a company from looking at its HR function. If it is slow and bureaucratic, the chances are that the rest of the organisation will be similar. If HR is over-staffed and inefficient it is very unlikely that it will be part of an otherwise lean and streamlined operation.

It is always interesting to see what happens when the HR function is re-organised and reduced in size. Managers who have been slagging off HR for years soon change their tunes when they realise that there will be no-one there to wipe their backsides for them. They have to confront the poor performers, call people when they’ve been off sick for a few weeks, remember when the fixed-term contracts are coming up for renewal and talk to the police about the drunken after-work brawl in the pub next to the office. All things, you might argue, that a manager should do anyway but which, without the support of an HR professional, suddenly seem more daunting. When faced with the reality of life without their local HR manager in the next office, managers often become less gung-ho about getting rid of them.

The other useful function that HR serves is as a convenient scapegoat to deflect attention from other managers’ shortcomings. If you think you are about to get challenged on your department’s own inefficiency, try attacking HR. You can usually get some other people to gang up with you. Of course, this doesn’t work when you get an efficient pared-down HR function with a strong HR director.

The truth is, inefficient HR functions exist because they cover up the deficiencies of inefficient organisations. To any CEOs and directors who think that their HR function is useless and over-staffed I would ask this simple question, “If they are that crap, why haven’t you sacked them all?”

I’d go even further than that. If directors allow the continued existence of large departments which do not add any value to the business, are they not in breach of their fiduciary duties?

Sathnam Sanghera’s article is typical of many journalistic attacks on HR. It is written as if the HR function somehow exists in isolation from the organisation, as if it is an act of God, a force of nature or an unfortunate disease that attacks companies at random. In fact, HR functions grow up within organisations and, for the most part, reflect the culture and behaviours of the wider organisation. HR departments exist because, despite what they say, most directors and managers want them to. They have been a feature of organisations for the past fifty years or so and will continue to be, in one form or another, for the next fifty.

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17 Responses to If HR is so crap, why does it continue to exist?

  1. Absolutely spot on, Rick. If HR really was
    superfluous, why would otherwise hard-headed, efficient, lean, commercially driven organisations persist in wasting their money on having an HR function? In fact professional HR is a business necessity in organisations above a certain size.

    • Amir Ali Ahadi says:

      What? Hard – headed? Efficient? No… There are a majority of companies out their whose prime directives have not been met, because HR is entirely fixated on keeping a circle peg in a circle hole far too much. Then you have the problem of not advancing because you simply got what you wanted exactly, and the problems of having to deal with redundancy as a results. Most notable companies: Apple – Steve jobs was a man different to what HR wanted back in his day – but he’s the reason the world has technologically advanced in many ways. He’s what we call – a round peg in a square hole. Different.

      AMD – They cannot develop a better CPU or “Central Processing Unit” because they don’t hire anyone from the outside of their current bubble, in turn are about to become bankrupt – almost.

      Intel – just like AMD but this time they don’t know how to implement a better integrated GPU or “Graphics Processor Units”.

      I must protest that it is the HR that is the ultimate bottleneck of any company our there. For it’s them that allow fresh new recruits or new intelligent design to come through the company doors and start a new wave of intelligent processing. HR exist purely because the pathetic world is governed by fools.

  2. will says:

    “why would otherwise hard-headed, efficient, lean, commercially driven organisations persist in wasting their money” ?

    well, they do. Recent examples, called banks, abound (they wasted money on bonuses to people who were busy destroying value) Organizational politics is one way a department can survive long past its sell-by date. HR may be no different.

  3. Will – Just name a single successful medium-sized or large company without an HR function. Just one example will do, and I’ll take it all back.

  4. TheHRD says:

    Isn’t the reaction to this article in the HR press and the blogosphere not justifying Sanghera’s arguments?

    If had run a multi million pound business or even worked in a proper job for longer than few months at college I might be more interested in his views.

    He is paid to fill column inches and provoke debate, and the HR profession is about to fall right into his trap.

  5. Dipper says:

    The MARS corporation have an HR department that they take very seriously. MARS is privately owned by the Mars family, they answer to no-one (apart from the customer!), and they wouldn’t spend any money if they didn’t think it worthwhile. That’s good enough for me.

  6. Pingback: Workforce Vision » Workforce News » The HR in the Social Business Carnival

  7. sree says:

    I think it is time up for HR to redefine its role. HR folks need to decide whether they want to continue as ‘scapegoat’ or ‘road show’ organisers or simply Employee Help Desk operator. I would say HR should come out of its support function and acquire the status of a ‘profit center’. Only highly efficient HR teams can achieve this, that too with the whole hearted support of CEO/Board

  8. alberto says:

    Any successful firm has a cleaning lady, it’s a necessity. Don’t be full of yourself.

  9. AB says:

    Yeah, right on bro. And if North Korea is such an evil abomination of human endeavour, then how come it still exists? It has nuclear weapons and everything…………wait, I may have spotted a flaw in your argument that merelu continuing to exist in the face of overwhelming criticism doesn’t mean that HR provides any useful function to the rest of humanity.

    • Absolutely, all it would take for people to stop North Korea existing would be to leave it out of next year’s budget and allocate part’s of the country to other departments. Oh,no, wait, maybe you have just used the world’s worst analogy.- maybe you could have used this: if teachers can’t keep control in the classroom how on earth can we not expect organised volleyball tournaments to descend into anarchy? OR maybe if America can only have a president born in the US and is a superpower the best way for the UK to achieve superpower status is to only have leaders born in the US…or ugh….

  10. anon04 says:

    In this mercurial economy, it’s astonishing to have corporations who still rest their faith in this obscure concept of disciplining their employees and actually continue to expend surplus amount of their capital to develop the HR individuals who are supposed to perform this function.
    The task of disciplining a certain individual is usually ascribed to the educational institutions from where these employees come from and their performance depends on the concomitant incentives they receive so why channel it through a “separate” department with numerous people who can’t even participate in technical aspects of business nor does they have profound understanding of it. The irony is that they have to judge whether some prospective technical person has the potential to be conducive to the company in longer run or not.
    I don’t see any concrete reason to consider HR department as a “part & parcel” of any growing economy.
    The criticism to reform this system is by all means justified..
    Now people would tend to disprove it by bringing forth a lot of fictitious statistics that HR departments actually contribute to the profitability of company but its quite evident if not apparent that such an institution comprises of 20 or so people who are leeching on to the company’s profits while a single financial adviser could this job as much effectively as all of those people combined on a much lower cost.

  11. Amir Ali Ahadi says:

    Why? Because we live in a world governed by fools. That’s why, simple as that.

  12. Amir Ali Ahadi says:

    HR, is a useless psychologically black-hole to be honest. There isn’t a day in my life on how the fools who are HR are entirely qualified because simply they have a sharp resume and not a sharp universality functioning mindsets in their perspectives or point of view… I hate anyone who is HR till I get the reason not to….

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